A colony ship reaches a lush planet, but it is not as welcoming as expected.
|“What do you mean it's inhabited?” Captain Stein squinted her drowsy green eyes at the murky planet below.
Swirls of smoky cloud hung over sandy brown lands and azure oceans. The thick atmosphere formed a halo. On the dark side glowed rivulets of bright dots that looked like city lights.
“Isn't it obvious?” said Wang. “Anyway, we've been picking up their radio signals since yesterday.” His chunky frame shifted uncomfortably in his chair. His greasy black hair stuck to his round face.
“I don't suppose there is somebody on board who would be able to interpret those?” asked Stein.
“We have around a thousand engineers. If you think I'm going to wake up every one of them to ask if they can decode an alien signal, then just put me back into hibernation.”
“I see,” Stein sighed. “Yes, it probably requires a specialist team and plenty of time, neither of which we have.”
She had only been awake for two hours, and her head still felt dizzy. She rubbed her eyes once more, and brushed her long straggly black hair to one side. I look a mess, she thought.
Her life before she entered hibernation was a distant dream. Or was this the dream? If the planet was inhabited it would ruin their plans. None of the procedures she had learned had prepared her for this.
The colony ship had flown for over six hundred years to reach the Heron system, one of humanity's first attempts to move beyond its own neighbourhood. Two or three pilots had stayed awake throughout the journey, each one waking another after a few years and re-entering hibernation. That way the craft would be continuously manned and all the colonists would reach the destination – apart from the one in twelve who never woke from the long artificial sleep.
The second pilot entered the bridge and floated down to his chair to strap himself in. Levi was shorter than Stein, with a shaved head and a ringed half-moon tattoo on his brow – the mark of a former Space Guard. His big brown eyes sagged with age. Surely he's too old for a colonist. Stein suspected he had clung onto his pilot position for decades so that he could fly during the final stage.
“We studied the report carefully before we left Earth,” said Stein. “There were no signs of intelligence. The probe mapped the whole surface and landed at three separate sites. The only life it found were simple animals - lizards, fish, insects, worms. Could intelligent life have arisen in so short a time?”
“Probably it should have sampled more locations,” said Wang. “But if these lights were around back then, it would have seen them.”
Stein took another deep breath. The fuzzy sensation in her brain remained.
“There are two possibilities," she declared. "Either these beings existed when the probe came but were missed – or another ship reached the planet before us.”
“Not from Earth, surely?” said Levi.
“They would have told us. Have we received such a message?”
“No,” said Wang.
“The planet could have been settled by an alien species. But we have seen no sign of spaceships or advanced technology, have we?”
“No. And we know of no such species.”
“Then most likely the intelligent life is native but was missed by the probe," said Stein. "Perhaps their cities were not lit so brightly back then.”
How could the survey have been so careless? she wondered. Had they been so keen to find a pleasant, bountiful planet that they had rushed to send a colony ship without investigating it thoroughly? She decided to send a full report to Colony Planning about the matter, with detailed suggestions. Perhaps other ships had met similar problems.
“It's a big planet,” said Levi. “Bigger than Earth. There'll be room for us. Maybe the natives will be friendly.”
Stein hummed, deep in thought.
“What if they're not?” asked Wang.
“Then we'll have to defend ourselves,” said Levi. “There are twenty thousand colonists on this ship depending on us to bring them to paradise.”
“Would it be wise to try to colonise an inhabited planet?” said Stein. “Surely it would lead to conflict sooner or later.”
“We've come all this way,” said Levi. “And we have better weapons than them.” He grinned.
“What other option is there?” Wang moaned. “We can't go home.”
“We can,” said Stein coolly. “You should know that. There is enough fuel to take us back to Earth, as a precautionary measure.”
“Can you imagine the shame?” laughed Levi.
“There is another option,” said Stein. They looked at her. “We can ask Earth for further instructions. There are sure to be other worlds nearby that are suitable for colonisation which have been surveyed since we left. We can move to one of those.”
“It will take a hundred years for a message to get to Earth and back,” Levi protested. “Can't we just find a world in the database? Or stay here?”
“Without a detailed survey, there's no way to know if it's suitable. As for the delay, we can re-enter hibernation.”
“I don't like it,” said Levi.
“Neither do I. None of our options are ideal,” said Stein. “And there is no protocol for these circumstances. But I have made up my mind.”
Wang wobbled nervously. Levi gawked at her expectantly.
“We should land on the planet and investigate these creatures. Perhaps after seeing them, the way will become clear.”
She turned to Wang and ordered, “Wake up another two pilots to look after the ship while we are away.”
“Yes, Captain,” Wang groaned.
The shuttle windows flared amber and gold like a fiery aurora as the small craft shuddered through the atmosphere. Wang gaped nervously. Below lay a vast continent baking in sunlight. Long rivers meandered out from a central desert, each one edged in green.
Captain Stein's mind raced. She had not expected to land so soon. If everything had gone according to plan, she should be choosing which colonists to wake, selecting a landing site and preparing to assemble the first buildings.
Nothing felt right. She had doubts about her colleagues too. They were improper and slovenly, but perhaps that was what years of being a skeleton crew on a ship full of frozen people did.
She asked Levi to fly the shuttle to one of the fertile areas. As they approached, the outline of a large city took shape, with thousands of rectangular buildings and rough trackways dividing them. They could see small dots crawling along the roads.
“Don't land in the city,” she urged. “Stay outside. We don't want to be outnumbered.”
The shuttle touched down in a field a few kilometres outside the city's edge. It crushed bushes as it landed. Tall green plants grew in rows, bearing large blood-red horn-shaped fruits. The white sun beamed overhead in a crimson sky.
Wang groaned. “I can't get up. The gravity...” He struggled in his chair.
“It's been a long time,” said Stein, finding it hard to stand up as well. Thirty percent heavier than Earth's, she recalled.
They stretched and rose, exercising long-forgotten muscles. After a short rest they were ready to disembark.
Stein stepped out first into the clean oxygen-rich air, blastgun in hand. The breeze invigorated her, smelling like grass.
She spotted a creature looking at them curiously.
It stood low in height – a heavyset reptile-like being with rough silvery grey skin, six limbs and a sweeping tail. It wore a long one-piece brown tunic that covered it between its short thick neck and tail. Its wide head held a thin red mouth, small slit nose and slit ears, and two bulging yellow eyes. Its back four legs were as thick as tree trunks, while its two front arms were shorter and narrower, and carried a long narrow metal tube.
Stein took a step forward. Its wide eyes followed her.
“Hello,” she said. She knew it wouldn't understand but she wanted to say something.
The creature replied with a croaky word in its own language.
Levi moved forward next to Stein – it turned and pointed the metal weapon towards him.
“Stay there,” said Stein. “I think that's a gun he's got.” Levi froze.
She spoke to the creature. “We don't mean any harm,” she said. She placed her blastgun on the ground at her feet.
It lowered its weapon before looking at the other two humans. They followed Stein's example and soon all four stood unarmed with their weapons at their feet.
“My name is Stein,” said the Captain, approaching the alien with her hand outstretched.
It reached out its gnarly four-fingered hand and they touched. It croaked, then turned suddenly and waved its arm.
Before the humans could respond it picked up its gun and waddled away a few steps. It stopped to check if they were coming after and waved again.
They followed it beyond the end of the field where there stood a long low wooden house. The humans could only fit through the door by crawling. A single electric filament light beamed on the ceiling.
Two more creatures lurked in the room. One sat looking at a screen displaying a video projected from the opposite wall. The other stood stirring a pot beside a stone oven containing an obedient flame. The two stopped and stared at the intruders.
The first creature babbled at them, then the one with the pot turned to a device built into the wall. It pressed a button and spoke into a narrow rectangular hole. A faint voice from the device responded.
“Is that one calling the authorities?” whispered Levi.
“It looks like it. Let's get out of here,” said Stein. “I don't want us to attract too much attention. Besides, I think we've seen enough.”
They ran off without another word and returned to the shuttle. Soon they were tearing back up into space, leaving the strange world behind.
“Do you realise we're the first humans to meet an alien species?” said Wang.
“It happened so fast,” said Stein. “It didn't feel real.” For a first contact, it had been unexpected and underwhelming.
“What now?” queried Levi.
“It would be a mistake to settle this world,” said Stein. “They're too similar to us. Even if we remained on good terms with the aliens, our ability to expand would be limited. We would be bound by our relations with them. Either appease them and remain in a small area, or fight them. The future of their species would be at stake, as well as our colony.”
“Now that I have seen them, I am inclined to agree,” admitted Levi. “They look like they have a violent streak. Although it is frustrating after we've spent all this time getting here.”
“The colonists can't really complain,” said Stein. “We can contact Earth to ask for details of another suitable planet. And let's get away from this world. I don't want to spend the next century in hibernation while these aliens develop rockets. We'll find a nearby planet to wait in orbit.”
“Shouldn't we study them some more?” asked Wang.
“That is not our mission. Let Earth send another ship with the resources to communicate with them properly. With luck they'll be here in less than six hundred years.”
“Perhaps we should destroy them now before they become too powerful,” said Levi.
“I hope that was a joke,” snapped Stein. “We don't have the capability anyway.”
They docked with the colony ship, and breathed in the stale recycled air.
Had she made the right decision? Only time would tell. Some colonists would be angry with her, others would understand her reasoning. She had no idea what Colony Planning would say.
She decided to record a message for the pilots who would crew the ship while it slept, waiting for a message from Earth. They needed to know why she had done this.
Whatever happened, she knew her decision would haunt her for the rest of her life.